On Imagine Dragons’ “Amsterdam,” and being gay and Mormon

I don’t know what this song is supposed to be about, but if this song is not about a gay Mormon becoming aware of his sexuality, attempting to deny it, struggling and failing to resist “temptation,” looking for help in trying to live the straight life, hearing and attempting to follow (or cope with) well-meaning advice from more-or-less sympathetic people around him, and ultimately deciding to accept himself and make his own decisions, then I don’t know what it is about. And that, my friends, is my story. Today, on National Coming Out Day, I’m going to tell you some of that story.

I’m sorry, mother / I’m sorry I let you down

The very first person I told was not my mother, but my bishop. I was eighteen, I think, and I had been “struggling with feelings of same-gender attraction,” as the clinical language employed to hold these yucky, sinful feelings at the end of a pair of surgical tongs would have it, for at least four years. I did not want to be this way — gays were bad and terrible and succumbing to this temptation was letting the “natural man” win. I remember sitting on a bus stop bench on my way to school one crisp fall morning, all but crying, pleading with God to tell me that I wasn’t really gay (even though I had a crush on my (male) math professor). Finally I mustered the courage to confess my sinful feelings to my bishop. He was very kind. He said, “That is serious,” and recommended professional counseling. He also recommended that I tell my parents. So the very second person I told was my mother. I walked home, sat on the kitchen counter in my church clothes, and said, “Mom, I have been struggling with same-sex attraction.” She was surprised but promised to help me overcome these sinful impulses. I was grateful; that’s what I wanted to hear at that time. I wanted to hear that I could get through this, and that I wasn’t doomed to be gay.

Over the course of the next eight years, many things changed. I gradually came to accept myself, and to realize that these feelings weren’t sinful. My being gay, and accepting myself as being gay, has been hard on my mom, and I’m sorry about that. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.

Well, these days I’m fine / No, these days I tend to lie

I wore a lot of masks for a lot of years, and eventually those masks started to chafe. When I lived in San Diego, I went to a singles ward. For those of you unfamiliar with this idea, the plan is that you throw a bunch of young single adults together into a church organization, and then hopefully marriages happen — heterosexual marriages, of course. There’s an expectation hanging in the air that everyone should be dating, and if you’re not, then you are not taking your duties as a young single Mormon seriously. It was during my time in San Diego that I came to accept that I was gay — but before this acceptance, I lied to myself, and to the girls I dated, that everything was totally okay with this situation, and after this acceptance, I still put on my straight mask every Sunday and acted cheerful and bit my tongue whenever a wave of anti-gay sentiment would break over me (and this was in the thick of the first few post-Prop-8 legal fights over gay marriage, so there were plenty of those waves sloshing around). I was not fine, but my mask made me feel a little more safe. It could only ever be temporary, though. There is only so much lying you can do. Masks are heavy, and they make it hard to breathe.

Just by my left brain / Just by the side of the Tin Man

For a lot of years I tried to let my mind overrule my heart. It was important to me to have a wife and a family and a white picket fence and a dog and 2.3 children. It was important for me to stay Mormon. It was going to be okay, because there were people who had made it work. People can change. People are awesome; they can do lots of things. I was going to make it. Even though it was going to leave a lot of needs unfulfilled, it would still fulfill a bunch of other needs, and that complicated calculus was going to work out in my favor somehow. (I wrote that D&S post, btw. I’m done being anonymous about it.)

Eventually, though, I realized that I had a heart all along and I needed to listen to what it said.

“Your time will come, if you wait for it” / It’s hard – Believe me, I’ve tried / but I keep coming up short

The party line of the church when it comes to gay people is that yes, some people are born gay, and we don’t know why, but acting on those impulses is bad, and everything is going to work out in eternity. There seems to be the understanding that being gay is an unfortunate condition of mortality that will magically go away once immortality happens. In other words, it’s pathologized. Something is wrong with you, like if you were born without a foot or something. Don’t worry, you’ll get that foot back when you are resurrected.

The well-meaning advice given to me by a succession of Mormons trying to be sympathetic and understanding while toeing the party line was thus: “Just don’t act on it in mortality. It’ll all work out in heaven, you’ll see.” And, you know, for a long time, that was comforting. But once I started to think about the subtext, it started to feel less like sympathy and more like condescension. “Oh, you poor broken thing, you’ll be fixed after you die.” It started to rankle.

The other thing that really rankled about this was that I felt like these people did not understand how hard it was, and how saturated the world is with heteronormativity. Every straight couple cuddling in church or walking down the street holding hands, every “what’s-your-type” or “who’s-your-celebrity-crush” conversation with the guys, every Valentine’s day commercial where the guy plants a beautiful piece of jewelry in the girl’s coat pocket, every failed relationship with a girl who you actually really like but just can’t love — they’re all reminders that you are not normal, no matter how hard you try. You will always come up short.

I’m sorry, lover / I’m sorry I bring you down

And on that subject: The hardest coming out I ever had to do was to my girlfriend. We had been dating, pretty seriously if long-distance, for eight or nine months. She was from a part of the city that is usually considered to be the blue enclave in an otherwise very red area, and had expressed some pretty liberal views about the church, and so even when I admitted to myself that I was gay (this happened during the time we were dating), I wasn’t too worried. I thought she might be someone I could be Josh Weed with.

One day, though, she told me a story that made it clear that that was not really an option, and I knew that I was going to have to tell her, and that our relationship would end as a result. I still remember that phone call. I was so nervous; my heart was pounding. But it was what needed to happen, for the both of us.

(The fact that I awkwardly bumped into her two weeks later at a restaurant where we’d gone on a date the previous winter was just an amusing bit of cosmic lagniappe.)

Kinda thought it was a mystery / and then I thought I wasn’t meant to be / You set yourself fantastically, “Congratulations, you were all alone”

Why was I gay? Why did I have to struggle with this? Was it some cosmic mistake? Just a big sign from the heavens that I was supposed to spend my life alone, without companionship of the meaningful sort that everyone else gets to experience, and then when I died God would pat me on the back and say “congratulations, you did it, you were alone forever just like I wanted you to be”?

Fortunately, as it turns out, no.

“Your time will come if you wait for it” / … But I won’t wait much longer / ’cause these walls start crashing down

As I’ve alluded in the rest of this post, I am done waiting. Those walls are now rubble on the ground. I broke through the barriers that kept me from accepting myself as myself. It was hard, and it took a long time, and several rounds of counseling, but it was worth it. I make my own decisions now. I have a serious boyfriend now, and it is wonderful — I couldn’t believe how big of a difference there is between this relationship and relationships I have had in the past. The rain falls for the both of us; the sun shines on the both of us. I am happy.

Believe me when I say / that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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4 thoughts on “On Imagine Dragons’ “Amsterdam,” and being gay and Mormon

  1. Spencer, thank you for sharing your story. As one of those well meaning people who should have helped you more on your journey of self discovery, I apologize. You have always been, and still are, exceptional. I’m glad that you are happy and at peace with yourself, and that you enjoy a fulfilling relationship. You always will be part of our family. We love you, and support you. You’ve never disappointed us.

  2. you’ve come to accept that it’s okay for you to be gay. Now I hope you will realize that any Church is really unnecessary in your life. All religions in the world are constructed upon numerous fallacies, doublethink and superstitious beliefs which no prudent person should ever take seriously. You’ve defected from the teaching of your church once, in my opinion you should go all the way. I doubt gay mormons are really welcome anyway, and scripture makes it clear that homosexuality is not an option for a believer. So why believe in something that is against your nature? If I was a believer, I’d say I prayed for your moral independence and free thinking.

    1. So this is an interesting response for me. I guess I’ll sum up my feelings by saying that in any event, whether I choose to formally leave the church or not (which I did, not that it’s necessarily relevant), Mormonism is tribal in a peculiar way. What do I mean by that? I think that once you’ve grown up Mormon, that’s a part of your identity that is difficult or impossible to fully leave behind. So what I mean is, even though I left, Mormonism is still relevant to this story.

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